Europeans have looked favorably on the little hatchback for decades. With gas prices more than twice the cost of fuel in the States, EU drivers look to the hot hatch for the unique blend of fuel economy, sports car handling, and minivan utility. Basically, hatchbacks are what crossovers are trying to be. Here are the best hot hatchbacks on the U.S. market right now.
Surprisingly upscale and classy, the Elantra GT is also thrifty and capable. With mud flaps and a roof rack, it looks like the Elantra GT is ready to go camping, like a more affordable but equally capable and trendy Subaru Impreza. While the Elantra GT has front-wheel drive instead of the Subaru’s all-wheel drive, this benefits the Hyundai as it gets superior gas mileage at 24 city/33 highway MPG. It’s also loaded with tech, and there’s satellite radio, navigation, Bluetooth, USB ports, and Apple CarPlay. Plus, it has a huge warranty. For the 2018 model, the hatch has 25 cu/ft, and put the seats down and you’ve got 55 cu/ft. That’s equivalent to the Subaru Impreza wagon and just a few feet behind the Hyundai Tucson crossover. For reference, an average full-size side-by-side refrigerator has a total capacity of around 26 cu/ft.
The Civic hatchback went away after 2005, but returned in 2017 to enthusiast cheers. And with Honda’s legendary quality, sporty handling, quiet interior, plus cargo and utility, what’s not to love? The hatch sports the current Civic’s angular high-tech look and arguably wears it better than the sedan. While there is more practicality here compared to the sedan version, the hatch retains the Civic’s lively chassis and suspension, and a manual transmission shifter that is reminiscent of the S2000; among the best in the business. If you prefer to let the car do the shifting, get the CVT, which is programmed to mimic the shifting feel of a regular automatic. The steering is direct and the suspension loves corners, to the point that driving this car through some twisty roads is akin to taking a really happy dog on a walk. Honda nailed the fun factor on this car, and it shows. The 1.5-liter turbocharged four cylinder borrowed from the Accord punches above its weight. The base has 174 horsepower, but the Sport trim pushes it to 180. Behind the seats is 25 cu/ft of space, and 46 cu/ft with the seats down, and a unique roll-up cargo cover to protect valuables from the sun.
A five-door hatch with a diesel four cylinder, manual transmission, and a big brake package — made in the USA has never looked more European than it does with the Chevy Cruze. The interior looks like it’s been lifted from the more expensive Malibu, and it’s loaded with tech like Apple CarPlay. Even the 1.4-liter gas engine with a six-speed auto can get to 37 MPG highway, but the diesel is the star here. Available in the Cruze sedan since 2014, in the hatchback body style the diesel can get a hybrid-like 48 MPG. The nine-speed auto is so smooth that you can’t feel it shift, and the six-speed manual adds an element of fun often missing from this class. The seats are impressively comfy, and everything you touch seems to be cloth or leather. The rear seating is just as nice, and six-foot tall adults fit back there with no complaints. The hatch area is legit too, holding 23 cu/ft, and with the seats down, it increases to 47 cu/ft. Look for the Premier or RS packages for stylish wheels and a better riding suspension.
Sure, the base Golf is a good car and the upgraded GTI is fun, but the R helped create this segment as one of the earliest hot hatches. Over the years, VW has perfected the formula. Clean and classic Golf lines evoke a timeless and familiar look, but with additional vents and an R-specific grille and body kit, it also looks cutting edge. The interior is a bit Spartan, like a Toyota 86, yet it’s also refined and even elegant due to the high quality materials and superb fit and finish. The seats are best-in-class for comfort, and the handling and steering feel are spot on. Under the hood is a turbocharged 2.0-liter four cylinder making 292 horsepower, and sending it to all four wheels through a six-speed dual clutch transmission. The unique look means a smaller hatch area at just 17 cu/ft, but with the seats down the Golf gets to a useful 53.7 cu/ft. The lift-over height (how far off the ground to get something in the trunk) measures only 25.4 inches, compared to a Nissan Rogue at 29.2 inches.
This is an example of a company trying to declare victory in a market segment. With a fire breathing 2.3-liter making 350 horsepower and 350 lb-ft of torque, a precise manual transmission, and all-wheel drive, the Focus RS is a future classic. Based on the base Focus hatchback, the RS is thoroughly redone to become a rally car performer. Handling is on-point, as the car instantly goes where you point it. Acceleration is fierce, which is to be expected when it has as much power as the previous generation Mustang GT in a lighter car. Rear headroom and noise levels aren’t the best here (look to the Cruze and Golf, respectively), but refinement isn’t why you buy a muscle car hatchback. But there is some utility too, in the form of 24 cu/ft behind the rear seats. Put them flat and you are just shy of 45 cu/ft. That’s definitely usable. The RS is the angry little race car for people that have to daily drive something. When you can’t give up performance, but have to haul the kid’s soccer gear, get the Focus RS.